If thirty years ago someone had told me a day would come when I would tell church members to stay home on Christmas Eve, I would have replied with one word. ‘Impossible!’
But the impossible is a fact. I want you to stay home and worship on Christmas Eve through the web or face book page. It is hard to say this. For on the night that Jesus was born I am just like you. I want to be in the sanctuary alongside my brothers and sisters in faith. My ears want to hear the scriptures the words of prayer along with yours. And, I yearn to watch the children watch me while I lift a candle high into the air and proclaim “The Light of the World has come – Christ Jesus, is Lord. God is with us!” We will worship virtually but I will still miss you.
The Christmas Eve service will be live streamed at 5 PM. There are a few other home-based activities later that night. But we will not be in the sanctuary. It is too tricky to have everyone together in the sanctuary and make sure everyone stays healthy during a pandemic.
In searching for my own peace with this decision, I reflected upon the long history of churches. Most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th. In a dream an angel appeared to Joseph to tell him Mary’s son was God’s Messiah. He was sent to the world to save us from our sins. (Mt. 1:20). Salvation is a precious thing. God’s sacred gift is more than we deserve, and worship is the way we thank God for it. As much as I love to be in a crowded sanctuary filled with the sights and sounds of the season. The real focus for worship is upon God. He is with me and I can thank him in the safety of my home.
We are not the first church-goers to deal with a pandemic. In the second century there was the Antonine Plague. In the third century it was the Plague of Cyprian. Both were terrible. Without the benefit of modern medicine there were few defenses. Entire clans risked exposure, illness and death. But the plagues turned into watershed events for the church. Christians organized healing houses and attended to anyone who was sick. Strangers brought their weak or orphaned or widowed ones to the Christians. The immigrants and the slaves sought help from them and received it. Even the Emperor noticed how Christians cared for others. The church was no longer an oddity but a trusted religion within the Empire. And many people became disciples of Jesus Christ. *
In 1527, the Bubonic Plague entered Wittenberg. The German Reformer Martin Luther urged his followers to care for the sick. He criticized those who ignored precautions in order “to prove how independent they are.” Luther wrote: “rather than tempting God, we should ask God mercifully to protect us…. I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” * * It assures me to know that it mattered when these Christians made hard decisions for the right reason.
So, Christmas is going to be different for me. But Jesus Christ is still my Lord and I am being changed for the good. His Spirit continues to spread its influence out over the world. I still trust that all who call upon his name will receive the gift of eternal life. He just wants us to look out for each other and protect those who need it. He “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mt. 20:28) and he instructed all of his disciples, to “love one another, just as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). If I can do that, you can do it too and the silence of Christmas Eve will still be holy indeed.
*Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 83-84.
**Luther, Martin. “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II,ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 131-132.